Cover Photo: Photo by Caleb George
Photo by Caleb George

It Eddies at Your Back

Other people’s problems are always more easily discerned than your own—paper ships at a distance.

I wasn’t there when they brought Jimmy’s body out of the trees and laid it bare and damp on the straw and the clay. I wasn’t there to stoop beside him in the gray light of that morning, or any of the mornings after, which seem like they must come after a tragedy if there is any justice in the world, to give you a chance to make up for what you have not done. I was not there to close his eyes and to kiss his eyelids and to hold his hand so that he would know that, even if he had already left his body, it was okay for him to go. I wasn’t there to smell the scent of decay and death and to commit it to memory so that every image of Jimmy that I held in my mind from then on out would be transfigured and transformed to hold whatever quality death has that makes it different from life. 

I wasn’t there, so the images I have are always of him smiling or grinning crookedly or staring long into the distance, dreaming and wondering and prodding the unknown with the vastness of his imagination. The images I have are of him floating on his back. The images I have are of him leaping from the same branch he used to hang himself, falling for a long time through the slash of space over the creek, sinking beneath its surface and rising eel-like, slithering in a straight and writhing line back to the air. The images I have of him are of the breathing, alive him. Not the Jimmy who, cold and rigid, they cut from the branch with a poleax. 

Not the Jimmy who couldn’t stand being in his skin a second longer, who couldn’t take the twisting, squirming under himself another moment. Who couldn’t accept all that he was and all that he would be—no, I don’t have that image in my mind, and some days, in my dreams, he drifts back to him and tells me that this is a betrayal, that I betray him by refusing to accept the him who finally saw his way out of this world and into the next. A betrayal to not remember the whole him, the entirety of him: his silences, his moodiness, and the way he alternated between touching, tenderly, and retreating, harshly. He issues up white and gaseous like a ghost and looks at me with anger and frustration. It’s not right. It’s not right at all.

Sleeping is difficult, and it has been for a long time, so I try to work nights. Or at least, I try to go out at night. There are always people around, and dealing with people is easier than dealing with myself. Their problems always come out so neatly and in such easily collapsible packages. Other people’s problems are always more easily discerned than your own—paper ships at a distance.

When I first got to New Orleans, I used to walk the strip near Claiborne. It was a shitty part of town. Is still a shitty part of town. The lights rush at you so fast that they leave bruises. It’s a long string of cars idling in frustrated rows and rows of rows, all the way back to the horizon, where you can see downtown lights glowing under the dome of the heavy sky. And there, the sea, grey and churning makes the lights dance. When a car that wants you spots your shadow, they do a loop and turn off into one of the grassy alleys between the project houses, and you wander over. And for five minutes, some man makes your mouth into whatever heaven he’s looking for. He pumps and grunts and curses and spits and grips at your hair even if you tell him not to, and he eventually, he comes in an ugly, salty stream on your tongue. Then he gives you your ten or twenty dollars and he’s gone.

I don’t do that anymore. I like to walk the river, near Jackson Square, and Café du Monde is close by there, so it’s just a five or ten-minute walk, and I don’t mind it. I lean on the railing and smoke and watch the river dance. I like this part of the river, because even though there are so many shops and restaurants and lights nearby, there’s a hill, and the river is down its slope. So the light never really reaches the water. It eddies at your back, and you can crouch on the rocks and smoke in peace and darkness. 

I probably smoke too much. I came out with a three pack a day habit. Smoking is the only thing that my mother and I share. That and a tendency toward fucked up hypersexual relationships. But you have to get over that, don’t you? You have to get over finding nothing between you and your parents to connect the generational gaps. You have to get over feeling isolated and different. You have to get over the fact that there’s nothing connecting you to a long string of family history, and that it isn’t going to suddenly burst from you and fix it all. Nothing is going to fix the misunderstandings or make you suddenly, infinitely more ready to accept the burden of your name. At least, not in my case, so I’ve got to keep going and keep crouching near this river and smoking.

I lied when I said I don’t do it anymore. I let men fuck me because if they fuck me, I don’t have to look at them in the eye, and I don’t have to be alone. I let them fuck me, because fucking is easier than loving, and easier to find than loving, and easier to accept than loving. I let them fuck me and I fuck them back because it’s nice to be a part of something that has its own rules and regulations and customs; you see a guy, he sees you, you go to the back, take your clothes off (or not, it’s your choice) and you hump and grunt until you’re both off and racing to the moon. Then you’re done, and you fall away from each other. You’ll never see him again, and he’ll never see you again. You could get run over by a bus tomorrow, and he’d never know. He’d never know that the person who was inside of him, the person who was burning his way toward the beating center of his being was dead and crushed under a bus, and it wouldn’t matter because there was no burden of expectation or of the next moment or of history.

It’s lonely, but I need the money, and being a waiter isn’t glorious. It’s hard work. I keep scalding my fingers on the dishwasher. I keep getting dizzy from weaving around so many sweating, loud bodies. I keep losing track of the number of times I throw up in the bathroom because I’m not eating and I’m drinking too much again, and the last time this happened, I had to check back into outpatient rehab, and I don’t want that. So sometimes, I blow off work, and find some John in the park, and let him fondle my ears while I blow him, and then I get my money and it’s off to pay the bank and the phone and the groceries. Rent has to wait. It’s always the last thing, and sometimes I don’t have enough, so that’s another blow job in the landlord’s bathroom while his wife takes his kids and the little yappy dog to the corner movie theatre. 

I used to have a dream. Jimmy and I used to sit on the creek bank at home and share our dreams. He wanted to start his own tire business. He didn’t want to take over his daddy’s land. So he was going to start a tire business in Jacksonville. I wanted to be famous. He laughed at that. Famous for what. I didn’t know then. I don’t know now. To be honest, I don’t want to be famous. Most nights, when I’m wrapped up with the shakes or whatever, the one thing I want more than anything else is to cross time and space and to slip back into my fourteen-year-old self and touch Jimmy’s face and hands and chest and everything.

I just want to touch him, really touch him. Not the touching that comes in dreams or in memory, but the touching that comes during the day, when the sun is skimming the tops of the trees, and the creek is quiet and everything around us is still and dim: when fingers touch the apex of his nose, and he closes his eyes in absolute surrender.

Brandon Taylor is a Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s also currently the assistant editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. He’s been both a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a Lambda Literary Fellow in Fiction.